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By Sister Nancyann Turner, OP
February 26, 2024, Detroit – Some 45 people representing eight Catholic parishes, the Synod of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, an elder in the Christian Community Church, and three religious orders met on February 17, 2024, to share conversation and reflection on race.
This was the first of four meetings to be held at different areas within the Archdiocese of Detroit during the next four months. The series is funded in part through a grant from the Capuchin Franciscans, a religious order of men within the Catholic Church.
The series was initiated by the Archdiocese of Detroit Anti-Racism Coalition. Leaders of the day included Adrian Dominican Sister Cheryl Liske, OP; Angela James, Director of the Gamaliel Race and Power Institute; and Minister DeJuan Bland, lead organizer of Detroit’s Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES), a community-organizing nonprofit organization that develops strong grassroots leaders and organizes campaigns to address social justice issues.
Adrian Dominican Sisters Ellen Burkhardt, OP, Cheryl Liske, OP, Anneliese Sinnott, OP, and Nancyann Turner, OP, are among the members of the Detroit Anti-Racism Coalition. Steven Wasko of Our Lady Gate of Heaven/St. Suzanne Parish leads this coalition.
The group that met February 17 discussed examples of personal, interpersonal, and institutional racism, but the primary focus of the meeting was on understanding structural and systemic racism and the many places where it exists.
Attendees shared in small groups their reasons for attending this gathering about racism and what they felt was at stake. Each person also set some personal goals for these Sacred Conversations. The closing ritual included the anointing of hands as a sign of continuing this work.
The next Sacred Conversations on Race is scheduled for Saturday, April 13, 2024, at St. Mary of the Hills in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Feature photo at top: Leaders at the first Sacred Conversations on Race discussion are, from left, Angela James, DeJuan Bland, and Sister Chery Liske, OP.
February 22, 2024, Adrian, Michigan – A recent presentation offered by the Adrian Dominican Sisters Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion explored the lives of a population often cast aside or derided by the mainstream culture: prison inmates.
The February 7, 2024, presentation, Light from the Cage, also touched upon racism. “Culturally, we know that Black males are overrepresented in prison,” said Kevin Hofmann, Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion, in his introduction to the presentation. He challenged the audience to consider how their culture views prisons and prison inmates.
Judy Wenzel, author of the 2017 book Light from the Cage: 25 Years in a Prison Classroom, spoke of her experience as an adult educator who, seeking a substitute teaching job with Milan [Michigan] Area Schools, was called upon instead to fill an immediate opening as a teacher in the Milan Federal Correctional Institution. “That short walk across the hall totally changed my life,” she said.
Judy noted the diversity of inmates in federal prisons and her challenge as a white woman teaching them. “So a federal prison has people from all over the world, and when I [first] got there, my students were mostly white – and then the mass incarceration really kicked in,” she said. “So then what I had in the early ’90s were young Black men from Detroit, Flint, Chicago, Cleveland – young, in their ’20s. They just got swept up.”
She ultimately learned how to reach her diverse group of students when a student told her they were uninterested in Van Gogh or Shakespeare. She reached them with Black spirituals, Black literature, and poetry.
But Judy soon came to realize the creativity of her students. One student in her a history class suggested that they create and perform a play. She invited others to attend the “Breakfast Theater,” which the audience loved. “Then we were off and running, so we did all kinds of plays the whole time I was there,” Judy recalled. “It was so much fun.”
Through the years, Judy learned from her students: from one who took all of her classes and included a paragraph of wisdom in each assignment, from a group of students who held a mock election in 2008, and from the way many of them lived through long prison sentences for drug violations. “How do you come in and face 33 years?” she asked. “There are saints who live there.”
Judy also experienced the kindness of the men – to each other, as they faced years together in prison, and to herself when her father died, and later when she broke her ankle. When she finally returned to teach at the prison, she said, the men provided her with a table so she could teach while sitting down. “They flanked me down the hall so I wouldn’t fall,” Judy recalled. “They were nursing me back to health.”
Judy also spoke of the damage that prison does to inmates and society. “We have a terrible idea of who’s in prison,” she said. “Prisons do two things really well: they keep people in, and they keep the rest of us out, so we can’t get near them.” The system also devastates the inmates, taking away their agency and their ability to figure out how to lead a good life, and family members who suffer from the lack of their loved one’s presence in their daily lives.
Watch the video of Light from the Cage.